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Voting Rights Groups Call for End to Tainted Investigations of Ohio Voters

October 22, 2008

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 22, 2008

CONTACT: Ray Conger, rconger@gloverparkgroup.com, 202-292-6961

VOTING RIGHTS GROUPS CALL FOR END TO TAINTED INVESTIGATIONS OF OHIO VOTERS
ACLU, Project Vote, Demos, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and others urge Hamilton County Prosecutor to suspend baseless, intimidating investigation

Washington, DC – A coalition of voting rights experts urged Hamilton County Special Prosecutor Michael O’Neill yesterday to suspend a series of widely-publicized investigations of voters unless there is specific, credible evidence of illegal conduct such as voting fraud. The investigations, which came to light on Friday, October 19th, included a subpoena to county election officials demanding personal information from several hundred voters who registered and cast an absentee ballot during the “same day voting” window between September 30 through October 6. The coalition cautioned O’Neill that investigations based upon nothing more than registering and voting as provided by Ohio law would be unwarranted and intimidating actions that threaten to disenfranchise Ohio voters. In a letter to O’Neill, the coalition cautioned that federal laws prohibit intimidation of voters in a federal election and that “an investigation of persons based on nothing more than their exercise of their right to register and vote also would violate their constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

“This baseless attack on eligible Ohio voters will do nothing more than intimidate and disenfranchise people who are participating in our electoral process for the first time,” said Jon Greenbaum, director of Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We cannot allow desperate attempts at voter suppression to threaten the rights of eligible, law-abiding Ohio voters in the eleventh hour.”

The coalition’s October 21 letter, which was signed by experts from the ACLU, ACLU of Ohio, Demos, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Project Vote and several others, highlighted the questionable motivations of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters, who opened the investigation and issued the subpoena for voters’ personal information while at the same time serving as the Southwest Ohio chairman of the McCain presidential campaign. Deters subsequently stepped aside and a county judge appointed Michael O’Neill as a special prosecutor for the investigation. The coalition told O’Neill that Deters’ obvious conflict of interest and public statements had irreparably tainted the investigation and related activities in Ohio, especially in the days leading up to the November 4 election.

The letter noted that Deters initially declined to identify any specific basis for these investigations other than general “complaints of fraud,” and that he could not discern the source of the allegations. Subsequent reports of Mr. Deters’ comments included broad claims of illegal conduct, despite the fact that the Hamilton County Board of Elections has received no fraud allegations from county election officials. The coalition’s letter noted that such claims in the weeks before an election will have a chilling effect on participation by lawful voters.

Four different federal and state courts have recently upheld the right of Ohio citizens to register and cast an in-person absentee ballot during the five-day window between the beginning of early voting and the end of the registration period, as provided by Ohio’s laws. Merely registering and casting an absentee ballot during this period cannot provide grounds for opening criminal investigations, which will only serve to intimidate and harass Ohioans who are exercising their lawful right to register and vote in a federal election.

The coalition provided copies of its letter to the Voting and Criminal Sections of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Ohio Attorney General and Secretary of State, the Hamilton County Board of Elections and to Mr. Deters.

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